Resiliency, consistency helps deliver Will Power his elusive first IndyCar title

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In a Verizon IndyCar Series paddock that features some great personalities – even if they’re more reserved and mild-mannered on camera than they are once you get to know them as the circus travels cross-country week-to-week – Will Power stands out as much for his quirks as his on-track prowess.

Until Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway though, misperceptions of Power included being known more as “the double bird guy,” “that guy with the funny name” and “the non-oval driver.”

But there was a serious word that Power needed to shake from the arsenal, or the narrative, and it wasn’t going to leave until he finally bagged that elusive first championship: choking.

That overlooks another, less discussed word that has actually been a greater hallmark and tendency throughout his racing career: resiliency.

Power was a then-unheralded driver from the World Series by Renault ranks when he made his first Champ Car start in a third Aussie Vineyards-backed entry for Derrick Walker at his home race, Surfers’ Paradise in 2005.

As he grew throughout 2006 and 2007, and won his first two races in the latter season, Power lost his ride as the Champ Car-IndyCar merger occurred. The sponsor shifted to KV Racing and when Walker’s team didn’t make it into IndyCar, Power moved over to KV.

He stood at another crossroads in 2009 when the sponsor departed altogether, but found a new chance with Team Penske first as a fill-in for Helio Castroneves and then in a part-time third car. Power maximized his opportunity with a pole and podium at Long Beach, his first race with Verizon Wireless on the car, then fifth at the Indianapolis 500 and a win in Edmonton.

He hit another setback. He suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in a practice accident at Sonoma, but Power wasn’t knocked down. He was rewarded with a third full-time entry to Team Penske in 2010, fully backed by Verizon, and with an opportunity to ascend within the Penske hierarchy.

Yes, he missed out on championships in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012, all in dramatic and fairly unfortunate circumstances.

Still, it spoke volumes of how fast and talented he was that he’d consistently put himself in position to win the title in the first place. He just needed to become a bit more well-rounded. Sooner or later, the breaks had to go his way.

He survived an up-and-down 2013 that ended with more ups, particularly his 2013 Fontana race win, with a return for the go-for-broke style that served him well instead of a more cautious approach.

“Yeah, I think the fact that I wasn’t in the championship chase made me realize how aggressive I truly could be,” Power said Saturday night, when reflecting on last year.

“And I got back to how I raced when I was young which is attack, not be conservative. I think the three championships we lost was me kind of on being conservative in certain situations.

“And now I just feel like I’ve raced naturally. And it was a change, just because I was put in the position not to protect the points lead.”

He’s raced naturally in 2014, but again, he’s been resilient throughout the year.

This was a point illustrated by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell in Saturday night’s pre-race show. In-season, Power made several mistakes, and accrued several penalties, but managed to turn something out of all of them.

At Barber, he went off course on a damp track early and lost the lead. He still ended fifth. He hit pit equipment at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and was eighth. He sped in the pits in the Indianapolis 500… and again was eighth.

Despite his first lap contact with several cars in Detroit race two, he was still second. There was another pit road speeding penalty at Texas, and again, a rebound to second.

The Pocono block netted his worst finish in this run of 10th. Toronto race one, he spun in the rain, but due to fortuitous circumstances of the race date changing and his crew’s rebuild, he still ended ninth. Even at Sonoma, he recovered from his spin to 10th.

In no instant did the crazy-eyed Aussie lose it on track to where he took himself out of the race. He finished in the top-10 despite every one of those setbacks; on the whole, he only failed to complete one lap this season. That consistency spoke volumes about how well-rounded he’d become as a whole this year.

And of course, the last three weeks of the year encapsulated Will Power’s career in a nutshell.

There was the crushing dominance at Milwaukee. Then setback at Sonoma.

But this time, finally, there was resilience rather than defeat in the season finale.

“Yeah, it hasn’t sunk in that I’ve actually finally won the championship. I got a lot of questions before the race. And I just try to keep everything else out,” he said in the Fontana press conference.

“It was kind of weird. Didn’t even think about the process of the race or anything. Just was two weeks of not much sleep and stress and all that sort of stuff. Keeping my wife up at night. And just when I got in that race car just kept my mind on the job, focused and this is the result.”

The win allowed the other thing Power’s known for – his quirks – to shine through during an epic, off-the-wall, completely scatterbrained and simply perfect championship speech during the IndyCar championship celebration Sunday night.

Let’s face it. If anyone other than Power had lost his place in the speech, joking about Verizon, asking the teleprompter guy to scroll up or down, or forget his wife, Liz, you’d think they were a nutcase who shouldn’t be up there in the first place.

But because it was Will, it was so fitting, and just the right tone to cap off the 2014 season.

One where Power’s resiliency ended the choking narrative, on the way to his first series championship.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.